“We Can Weaponize Fiction, But How Do We Monetize Truth?”

J Curcio on 2016-11-28

Excerpt from Narrative Machines, 1st B&W edition available on Amazon.com

This Is Not A Game, The Alternate Reality Game Of The Real

“In modern political performances,” writes Richard Sennett in The Culture of New Capitalism, “the marketing of personality further and frequently eschews a narrative of the politican’s history and record in office; it’s too boring. He or she embodies intentions, desires, values, beliefs, tastes — an emphasis which has again the effect of divorcing power from responsibility.”

Consider this in contrast to the scheme presented in “They Live,” where there is one true reality that underlies all the messages that we are bombarded with. Nada puts on the glasses, and those covert messages are rendered overt. OBEY. CONSUME.

Reality, of course, is far more confusing. All messages are “in code”, every collection of data points can be fictionalized in any number of ways. And we must ask to what purpose? All fictions stand in for the truth as they are repetitively performed. This is the central fallacy behind Enlightenment or pop-cultural re-interpretations of the implicit awakening, getting #woke, or taking the Red Pill. There is no one truth hidden beneath propaganda. The rise of conspiracy news should not be mysterious in light of this. One does not “step out of ideology,” one switches one pair of glasses for the next.

We may find no better presentation of the crisis of the hollowness of appearance than Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation — the surface has subsumed the possibility of an essence. The anxiety here is that without some sort of Neo-Platonic ground to rest on, an immoveable point to hang Foucault’s Pendulum from, the whole world will come undone. And people are right to feel anxious, though the fear is ultimately baseless.

…even the Pendulum is a false prophet. You look at it, you think it’s the only fixed point in the cosmos. but if you detach it from the ceiling of the Conservatoire and hang it in a brothel, it works just the same. And there are other pendulums: there’s one in New York, in the UN building, there’s one in the science museum in San Francisco, and God knows how many others. Wherever you put it, Foucault’s Pendulum swings from a motionless point while the earth rotates beneath it. Every point of the universe is a fixed point: all you have to do is hang the Pendulum from it.

All being is ungrounded. That central assertion of existentialism — that existence precedes essence — is not one that we’d like to challenge. Much of Baudrillard’s book seems to react directly with today’s headlines, of the collapse of ‘consensus reality’ (or the sense that there is one), into the event horizon. Consider this rather lengthy passage,

The impossibility of rediscovering an absolute level of the real is of the same order as the impossibility of staging illusion. Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible. It is the whole political problem of parody, of hypersimulation or offensive simulation, that is posed here. For example: it would be interesting to see whether the repressive apparatus would not react more violently to a simulated holdup than to a real holdup. Because the latter does nothing but disturb the order of things, the right to property, whereas the former attacks the reality principle itself. Transgression and violence are less serious because they only contest the distribution of the real. Simulation is infinitely more dangerous because it always leaves open to supposition that, above and beyond its object, law and order themselves might be nothing but simulation. But the difficulty is proportional to the danger. How to feign a violation and put it to the test? Simulate a robbery in a large store: how to persuade security that it is a simulated robbery?

There is no “objective” difference: the gestures, the signs are the same as for a real robbery, the signs do not lean to one side or another. To the established order they are always of the order of the real. Organize a fake holdup. Verify that your weapons are harmless, and take the most trustworthy hostage, so that no human life will be in danger (or one lapses into the criminal). Demand a ransom, and make it so that the operation creates as much commotion as possible — in short, remain close to the “truth,” in order to test the reaction of the apparatus to a perfect simulacrum. You won’t be able to do it: the network of artificial signs will become inextricably mixed up with real elements (a policeman will really fire on sight; a client of the bank will faint and die of a heart attack; one will actually pay you the phony ransom), in short, you will immediately find yourself once again, without wishing it, in the real, one of whose functions is precisely to devour any attempt at simulation, to reduce everything to the real — that is, to the established order itself, well before institutions and justice come into play.

This wry observation about politics as performance jibes all too well with what we’ve seen happen in the states throughout 2016, and echoes, in another way, Roger Stone’s Rules, “Politics isn’t theater. It’s performance art. Sometimes, for its own sake”, as well as Putin’s former “Grey Cardinal’s” rhetoric and acts over the past decade,

In today’s Russia, …the idea of truth is irrelevant. On Russian ‘news’ broadcasts, the borders between fact and fiction have become utterly blurred. Russian current-affairs programs feature apparent actors posing as refugees from eastern Ukraine, crying for the cameras about invented threats from imagined fascist gangs. During one Russian news broadcast, a woman related how Ukrainian nationalists had crucified a child in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk. When Alexei Volin, Russia’s deputy minister of communications, was confronted with the fact that the crucifixion story was a fabrication, he showed no embarrassment, instead suggesting that all that mattered were ratings. “The public likes how our main TV channels present material, the tone of our programs,” he said. “The share of viewers for news programs on Russian TV has doubled over the last two months.” The Kremlin tells its stories well, having mastered the mixture of authoritarianism and entertainment culture. The notion of ‘journalism,’ in the sense of reporting ‘facts’ or ‘truth,’ has been wiped out. In a lecture last year to journalism students at Moscow State University, Volin suggested that students forget about making the world a better place. “We should give students a clear understanding: They are going to work for The Man, and The Man will tell them what to write, what not to write, and how this or that thing should be written,” he said. “And The Man has the right to do it, because he pays them.”

Postmodernism has shown itself as a tool for art or annoyance in the hands of the Left. In the hands of the Right, these principles are a heavy rock, itching to be hurled at your head. Without any intent to contribute further to the new Red Scare that seems to have started in the US Press, we still need to open our eyes and ask what exactly is going on. On the 26th of November this year (2016) The Intercept ran a justifiably scathing piece of the Washington Post’s apparent citation of an anonymous group with opaque methods as a trusted source on Russian propaganda,

…the individuals behind this newly created group (PropOrNot) are publicly branding journalists and news outlets as tools of Russian propaganda — even calling on the FBI to investigate them for espionage — while cowardly hiding their own identities. The group promoted by the Post thus embodies the toxic essence of Joseph McCarthy, but without the courage to attach individual names to the blacklist. Echoing the Wisconsin senator, the group refers to its lengthy collection of sites spouting Russian propaganda as “The List.”

Compare that with something Adam Curtis said on the BBC in 2014,

Surkov is one of President Putin’s advisers, and has helped him maintain his power for 15 years, but he has done it in a very new way. He came originally from the avant-garde art world, and those who have studied his career, say that what Surkov has done, is to import ideas from conceptual art into the very heart of politics.

His aim is to undermine peoples’ perceptions of the world, so they never know what is really happening. Surkov turned Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theater. He sponsored all kinds of groups, from neo-Nazi skinheads to liberal human rights groups. He even backed parties that were opposed to President Putin.

But the key thing was, that Surkov then let it be known that this was what he was doing, which meant that no one was sure what was real or fake. As one journalist put it: “It is a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused.”

The sky is falling. Or maybe this is just more of the same, multiplied by states, corporations, and rich individuals starting to realize how technology and social media can be leveraged to wage a ghost army culture war in our heads. If this poses a return to the yellow journalism of the previous century, it is at least not unprecedented. We are not merely in a post-factual world, we are in a period where narratives are being weaponized, and we’re free to pick our truth, like it’s a question of personal preference, vanilla or chocolate ice cream. For instance, might PropOrNot be forwarding a narrative from the Russian Government themselves, directly or indirectly? Maybe, maybe not. It hardly seems to matter. Us calling that into question shows just where we are, in terms of trust. Once we trust no one to deliver even the basic facts, the mission has been accomplished — even if it turns out we did it to ourselves.

A war in the virtual needn’t be relegated to hacking attacks, or perhaps better stated, the ultimate target is the human behind the machine. If the Russians did affect the U.S. elections in 2016, it wasn’t by “hacking the election” directly. It was through the oldest exploit in the book. And they weren’t the only ones who are turning in this direction. One may look just as much at Cambridge Analytica, a company that supposedly used psychometrics to help manipulate the Brexit and Trump elections at the source.1

In the 1990s you couldn’t use administrative structures [to rule]; we had to work through the reality we created instead. Politics in Russia is not just a form of theatre. You have to build the theatre as well. — Gleb Pavlovsky a former Putin spin doctor (2007)

These methods of propaganda amount to a reverse engineering of conspiracy theory thinking. After all, if people will believe with absolute conviction that the moon landing was faked on a TV set, why not do it for real next time? All the arguments engaged in for holocaust denial, the moon landing, and so on, provide a kind of template, which are built into memetic munitions with the assistance of postmodern theory. So much for its supposed self-referential uselessness. In “Matters of Fact, Matters of Concern” Latour says, “Of course conspiracy theories are an absurd deformation of our own arguments, but, like weapons smuggled through a fuzzy border to the wrong party, these are our weapons nonetheless. In spite of all the deformations, it is easy to recognize, still burnt in the steel, our trademark: Made in Criticalland.”

Though we are want to call them new in the West, as “fake news” became a buzzword only toward the end of 2016, this process has been quite active since before even the annexation of Crimea. Those in the Ukraine also frequently speak of having a sense of premonition about what is now happening in the West, as they have lived through it, without coming out the other side.

The methods used in creating alternate realities is also quite familiar to anyone with a background in Alternate Reality Games, which arose in the early Net and zine culture of the 80s and 90s at the hands of people such as Joseph Matheny. However, and this is absolutely essential, the intent of these works was to broaden the scope of creative possibilities, and was never in any sense to further political objectives. Here is what he said in “Transmedia: Who Invited the Lobsters Anyway?”,

As one of the developers of the literary style now referred to as Transmedia, and it was started as a literary style, regardless of how Johnny-come-latelys and interlopers may attempt to spin it these days, I am here to tell you that it was never intended as yet another marketing gimmick. Hands down, no exceptions, not part of the plan. Transmedia and its immediate predecessor, Alternate Reality Gaming are hybrids of traditional literary narrative, video game story arc, web enabled interactivity and real-life role playing games like LARPs. The original intention was to broaden and open up the storytelling process to mediums outside of the traditional publishing platforms, i.e. text/images. It was part Borges, part George Coates, part The Game (the move with Michael Douglas) and part other things.

This method included playing characters online, interacting irl, and generating a self-consistent world of media that support this “alternate reality.” As we have seen time and again, method is ethic-agnostic. All methods can be appropriated. This isn’t to say that Putin’s media network consciously co-opted ARGs, (though it’s not outside the realm of possibility), but rather that ARGs were a response to changing mediums, which gov-corp media machines have also come to adapt to. Consider this excerpt from the New York Times report “The Agency,” in 2015,

The Columbian Chemicals hoax was not some simple prank by a bored sadist. It was a highly coordinated disinformation campaign, involving dozens of fake accounts that posted hundreds of tweets for hours, targeting a list of figures precisely chosen to generate maximum attention. The perpetrators didn’t just doctor screenshots from CNN; they also created fully functional clones of the websites of Louisiana TV stations and newspapers. The YouTube video of the man watching TV had been tailor-made for the project. A Wikipedia page was even created for the Columbian Chemicals disaster, which cited the fake YouTube video. As the virtual assault unfolded, it was complemented by text messages to actual residents in St. Mary Parish. It must have taken a team of programmers and content producers to pull off.

And the hoax was just one in a wave of similar attacks during the second half of last year. On Dec. 13, two months later a handful of Ebola cases in the United States touched off a minor media panic, many of the same Twitter accounts used to spread the Columbian Chemicals hoax began to post about an outbreak of Ebola in Atlanta. … Again, the attention to detail was remarkable, suggesting a tremendous amount of effort. A YouTube video showed a team of hazmat-suited medical workers transporting a victim from the airport. Beyonce’s recent single “7/11” played in the background, an apparent attempt to establish the video’s contemporaneity. A truck in the parking lot sported the logo of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Many of Matheny’s most popular transmedia narratives, such as Ong’s Hat and El Centro, were active parodies of conspiracy thinking, at most raising the specter of all the fictional possibilities posed by the “unknown unknowns,” yet they were often quickly adopted by conspiracy theorists, much to his consternation. People still hunt the pine barrens of New Jersey for the fictional Ong’s Hat. As anyone who has tried to argue with conspiracy theorists know, an endless procession of cherry picked stats, “whataboutist” counter-examples and attempts at moral equivalence await. (“Yes, but what about the bad things Zionists have done,” “Sure the Gulags weren’t great but consider the US prison system, …”) These all serve merely as smokescreen. The ideology may at times be toward racism or nationalism driven by fear or yearning for sacred origins, but even more instrumentally, all the motivating factors we are seeing today have an anti-authoritarian flavor.

This presents one of the key ironies of recent social developments online: the 4 quadrant model of political ideology, always a loose sketch at best, has come totally unmoored. All corners have become anti-authoritarian, even when it is done in interests of an authoritarian regime. The only exceptions may be the moderate anti-authoritarian Left who suddenly find themselves in the impossibly confusing and rather self-hypocritical position of arguing in defense of institutions such as the CIA. Meanwhile, their former anti-authority icons like Assange have become valorized by the newly forming, strange-bedfellows coalitions of the Right.

These are Topsy turvy times in even the most literal sense, so this can only serve as an instructive example. These situations could flip in a matter of days or minutes. If the US government wasn’t as fully committed to this game of asymmetrical cultural warfare as much as the Russians, it was purely because their relative might made these tactics seem unnecessary. And we better believe they will be now. The future is likely to include yet more layers of fictional narrative, not less. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

We Are The Monkey Flowers

Politics, religion and law work their magic on us through images and symbols, costume, and ceremony. — Pretentiousness: Why It Matters

We should look back to consideration of memes and how myths spread. Within the context of modern markets, we are taught to think of the media (articles and editorials, podcasts, books, movies, music, etc) not much different than the sale of a sandwich, or any other commodity. This misses the function of media — it is primarily fungible socially.2 Memes are produced through exposure to a medium, rather than the container or vessel that merely serves to propagate the content in a material world. We may need to reconsider “the medium is the message” in this light. A book is dead trees, glue. A CD or hard drive is petroleum. There is an art to the container, the beauty of the hand constructed book, of paper or inks that are rendered by hand, constructed conscientiously, carefully. Regardless, to the extent that the art is in the content, containers are designed to attract us to that object, an object which in many cases cannot be reduced to the object itself. Art is an act, in the way speech is an act; the container is a carrier vehicle, a Trojan horse for myths.

So, a better metaphor than those following from ideas of consumption and commodity might be found in the relationship of flowering plants and the insects that help them spread. Imagine that pollen is cultural information. Flowers generate pollen and passively make themselves attractive to the insects that lap up the nectar, in the process carrying pollen from one flower to the next.

What sweet nectar and bright colors will lure in the unwitting insects? That’s the question advertisers and political strategists are bound to ask. The market is strictly concerned with selling the container, the surface. A random breath of wind also plays its role in disseminating this genetic material, but for the most part, this substance is carried along with the bees, who have no personal interest in its distribution.

We imagine bees are blissfully unaware of the pollen. They are drawn by the flower. The same is true in advertising. Countless dollars have been spent researching customer reaction to different colors, configurations of symbols and patterns. Certainly, much of this plays into the cutting edge of UX design, which is increasingly driven by neurological research to produce the desired results.

To an extent we all serve both as “bees” (memebearers) and “flowers” (nexus points, which can be codified within books, movies, or really in whatever container seems most appropriate to the nature of the narrative.) So we may be lured in by the narrative, or some other element, but what we take in and carry on are the mythemes embedded within it, which may very well have been placed there completely unconsciously by the author, or built into the architecture of the system. Myths are like narrative genetic codes, and few of us are consciously aware of our genes.

We are all attracted by different ideas and aesthetics, and politics, which themselves in a virtual space are primarily performative. Political performance online can have real world effects, to be sure, but it remains in that context performance art.

So much of what drives us to click, and our immediate response is a learned reaction driven by basic biological and psychological forces. As stock example, women’s magazines of course capitalize on this approach almost singularly, triggering insecurity and competition amongst females to drive sales, by directly leveraging these biologically and culturally re-enforced mechanisms. Nearly everyone is aware of this, or that sex is used to sell just about everything from deodorant to cars. What’s being sold is the representation itself. Pollen that does not impregnate may as well be sterile.

Consider that the market itself is subject to a sort of evolutionary and genetic model. “…[I]t becomes clear that interactive species in an ecosystem have the ability to change each other’s adaptive landscapes. This is just another way of saying that in a predator-prey arms race there is not a fixed definition of what counts as “the fittest.” -Delanda.

We may also consider the various relationships which may arise in the context of pollination. For insurance, monarch butterflies are lured by the nectar of milkweed plants, but so as to lay its eggs on the underside of leafs. These hatch, and quickly go about eating the plants, which are their only source of food. However, the plants have evolved a defence, a kind of latex that leaks out and suffocates the Monarch young. Those that survive, however, cut the vein that supplies this resin, and then eat in peace — until they finally cocoon and emerge as butterflies. At this point they are lured again by the nectar, and in the process pick up pollen, only then to fly off and continue the cycle. Considered metaphorically, this demonstrates one of many sympathetic antipathies which might exist in an ecosystem.

A market is essentially a conceptual domain mapped on top of the pre-existent ecosystem, so ecological and evolutionary dynamics are more like causal agents within that system than the formal rules of many traditional economics theories which, based on various logical presuppositions, have shown themselves demonstrably false. And how systems theory style analysis of social webs is coming along,

I want to propose a new metaphor for the world as it is — a Narrative Machine — where macroeconomic reality is still understood as a cybernetic system, but where the translation of “reality” (all of those economic fundamentals and if-then statements of the Economic Machine) into actual human behaviors and actual investment outcomes takes place within a larger Machine of strategic communication and game playing. … How do we observe an invisible network of social interaction? How do we touch the intangible? — W. Ben Hunt, Ph.D

What we’re seeing is a system optimized on what people want to see more of. It has no connection to truth. That simply isn’t part of the metrics and won’t be unless truth can be monetized. We say we want the truth in news at the least, but the media ecosystem we’ve built doesn’t demonstrate that. And there’s little chance of that cloud of unknowing vanishing anytime soon. The “Post Truth Age” is nothing new, information has merely been amplified and accelerated. If we want to monetize truth we have to have a quick heuristic to determine it, and we don’t have that either.

This simply exposes an existing problem in our “hardware,” because we ourselves aren’t optimized for this purpose. Our biases are a feature not a bug. The work of Donald Hoffman, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, explores this in more detail,

“We simulated hundreds of thousands of random worlds and put organisms in those worlds that could see all of the truth, part of the truth, or none of the truth,” explained Hoffman. “What we found in our simulations was that organisms that saw reality as-it-is could never outcompete organisms that saw none of reality and were just tuned to fitness, as long as they were of equal complexity.”

The implication, Hoffman said, is that an organism that can see the truth will never be favored by natural selection. This suggests that literally nothing we can conceive of can be said to represent objective reality, not even atoms, molecules, or physical laws. Physics and chemistry are still inside the umwelt. There’s no escape.

“If our perceptual systems evolved by natural selection, then the probability that we see reality as it actually is, in any way, is zero. Precisely zero,” said Hoffman. — “Questioning the nature of reality with cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman,” YANS podcast

…A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Truth?

The debate about “truth” between various corporate and political interests and their platforms over the past year calls into question the imagined bedrock of our own journalistic ethics and practices, or has, at the least, demonstrated to us in painful detail that the Emperor has no clothes. Bias has always been an accepted dirty secret of journalism, but that has fundamentally changed in just a few short years. (Or it at least appears to be so, which once again, is effectively the same thing.) The assumption has been that the citizens can think for themselves. Trying to jury rig our distribution networks to compensate for bias is Orwellian, the fact that we might need it, incredibly depressing. At the end of the day, a click is money in the bank, whether the content is Badiou’s Republic, a new #pizzagate hot take, or a puppy being shot in the head.

Ethics are judged on intent and effect, but aren’t meant to replace veracity. It matters if you killed someone truly by accident, or if it was premeditated, or done out of passion; it matters still more that you killed someone in the first place. This is an uncomfortable observation for journalists but that makes it no less true, since the Real isn’t what we’d like to be the case. Simply telling the truth isn’t always enough — and yet, and this can’t be understated — this is the argument commonly used by regimes to legitimize disinformation. In practical terms, truth is a statement not of epistemological certainty but rather social power, which is an observation Foucault would probably find appealing.

Any kind of social factor (money, power, prestige) that you try to optimize along with the truth results in a bias at scale — you end up with something that doesn’t resemble truth at all.

Consider what happens if you decide to pursue the truth and then only publish what brings money/prestige. You end up with a situation akin to another recent crisis of confidence, this one in experimental psychology, where spurious positive results were considered god’s whole truth because the many similar studies with negative results were never published.

If you do it the other way around (purely pursue financial interest but then publish only what’s true) you get a similar result: nobody bothers to falsify anything.

Effective propaganda often works the same way. You publish only verifiable, fact-checked narratives that also correlate with the message you want, and if you can manipulate the incentives well enough then nobody will ever notice that it’s not the whole truth.

We’re left to guess at intent based on the apparent interests that a publication has. The effect is maybe more apparent after some time has passed — but this distancing is never enough to remove us from our own interests. Our cognitive biases are increasingly easier to weaponize, and our need for the truth has never been harder to monetize — or even justify. And if we’re left to guess, we’re left to project our own worldview in relief. If I’m prone to believe one narrative over another, to what extent is that viridity in the narratives, and to what extent is that in us? Epistemology in this way always seems to loop back around to literature. We can’t get the human out of the human.

So, we have to take a hard look at how things are, rather than how we might like them to be, and ask ourselves what truth does, what it’s worth — how that can be monetized within the context of infotainment today. The unpleasant alternative is that this problem continues and grows, and we never again have a consensual basis of even the most basic facts. Narratives drive our engagement with the news, not facts or figures, except inasmuch as they help us feel more connected to those myths. A good myth that gets us going, that’s as good as cocaine. Anyone that’s tasted religious ecstasy knows that. And woe betide those who try to convince them in the grips of it that it’s not real.

The essential characteristic of fascist propaganda was never its lies, for this is something more or less common to propaganda everywhere and of every time…The essential thing was that they exploited the age-old Occidental prejudice which confuses reality with truth, and made that ‘true’ which until then could only be stated as a lie. — The Seeds of a Fascist International, Arendt

See also:

News and Lies: In Defense of (Some) Propaganda

BladeRunner and the Synthetic Panopticon

1 “The Data That Turned The World Upside Down,” Vice Magazine.

2 Money can deliver messages to receptive minds, which has a far greater value as social capital than in terms of immediate hard profits. In practice, this often comes about through an internal war between journalists, artists, and producers on one side, bean counters on the others, and absentee owners that still manage to have their big picture interests served by the narratives supported by an outlet or publication.

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